Most of us pick up a few social conventions very early. For example, if conditions are awkward or potentially embarrassing, we ignore those circumstances or tell white lies that deny their existence. Children on the spectrum, however, are much more likely to announce - plainly, accurately, loudly, and clearly - exactly what they observe, and point out what is most unusual about the situation. And, while this can be embarrassing for the adults associated with the devastatingly truthful and accurate observers, having the truth told by one who is protected from social consequences by youth or disability (or the presence of a aide) can be useful... Consider the case of the emperor's new clothes: social convention allowed con men to pose as tailors, reaping enormous material gains and avoiding exposure as frauds - precisely because people feared the social shaming they risked if they pointed out that the emperor wore no clothes. It was only when an autistic boy stated plainly exactly what he saw (or, in that case, did not see) that the frozen face of social convention was shattered, and normal order could be restored.
When Alan was nine, computers were gradually coming into elementary schools. Their importance for learning and their place in society were clear enough that the school administration had created a job for someone to supervise and promote the use of computers in the classroom, and yet the "technology teacher" position was new enough that its function and responsibilities were not entirely clear. Many of the first technology teachers in elementary schools became caught up in concerns about when, where, and how children could properly use computers at school. Long, legalistic, and totally inappropriate "acceptable use" forms were created by the schools and had to be signed by the children. Policies were designed to ensure that the children would not view porn, learn how to build atomic bombs, sign up for neo-Nazi mailing lists, otherwise be exposed to inappropriate content, or waste time and resources. The administrators of the day must have been basing their fears and policies on those felt by colleges in the 1980s.
Alan loved the acceptable use forms. Rules! Rules about behavior! Rules defining bad behavior! Rules laying out the consequences of bad behavior! All in stilted, formal language with numbered clauses! He soon mastered the format and language, as well as the fundamental premise that each rule had its own specific rationale. Soon he began writing his own acceptable use policies. Most of the clauses were fairly standard, although the last few generally showed some creative flair. A policy for televisions mandated "no spraying Bactine on TV screens", and one for a motel in Alabama firmly warned against using "dirt sprayers in the guest rooms". Alan's fourth grade teacher found his acceptable use policies to be such telling (though unintended) satires of the "real" acceptable use policies that she taped one to the classroom TV screen.
One day Alan's third-grade classroom teacher had to go to a meeting during the time students were scheduled for time working on math. She had carefully planned the activities that would take place during her absence: the student teacher would supervise a half-dozen students, two of whom would use the classroom computers to play math games; one aide would work with a group reviewing concepts, and another aide would help another set of students review material they had not yet mastered. There were four adults in the room, and the kids were "on task"; in fact, it was a model example of differentiated math teaching at the elementary level.
Storming into this scene came the "technology teacher". She stomped over to the computers and shut them down. She then seized a ruler and slapped it loudly against a table several times - perhaps not realizing that everyone in the room was already staring at her. "May I have your attention, please! No children are allowed to use the computers unless your teacher is in the classroom!" With that announcement, she wheeled and headed for the door, through a pool of dumbstruck students and adults. Except for one. Alan sat up straight, a sparkle in his eye - this was a situation he reveled in, one that centered around rules. "But why?" he asked, loudly and clearly. He spoke for everyone in the room. The technology teacher at first thought she would ignore the special needs kid's question, but it was a long way to the door, and all the faces, kids' and adults', were tracking her and silently echoing the question. She stopped, and said, very firmly: "Because I said so" - the standard assertion of authority that all too often, as in this case, is used to cover up the fact that there is no good reason. "But WHY?" asked Alan again. There was no answer; there could be no good answer, and the technology teacher left the room. Soon thereafter, the policy changed.
People on the spectrum often speak out in ways that are inappropriate when measured against the standards of societal norms. This can be acutely embarrassing for their relatives, helpers, and friends because we all value the skills that smooth interactional frictions. But, as a society, we also value speaking truth to power, and we need to make sure that children with autism who do so are not disciplined or silenced, but instead are seen for exactly who they are: the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, stating the obvious, with no aggressive or rude intentions - just calling it as he sees it, and thereby freeing others to act.